Jan 29, 2015
Master of Movement

Functional training is accepted worldwide, but it’s not always implemented correctly. The master of the idea explains how it can take your athletes to the next level.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and a longtime contributor to Training & Conditioning. He is the author of Following the Functional Path and his daily thoughts on training can be viewed on his blog at: www.functionalpathtraining.typepad.com.

When I started formulating my idea of functional training, it was because I was uncomfortable with the way we were training our athletes. There was a lack of purpose to the training we were doing–it was an end unto itself rather than a means to an end. It seemed we were chasing artificial numbers and taking a reductionist view of the body by breaking it into independent parts and isolating muscles. My intuition, instincts, and study led me to find a better way to increase athletic performance. The result was functional training.

I think it is now time to revisit the concept so we can better employ it. Where did it come from? How has it evolved? Where is it today and where is it going tomorrow?

I originally conceived functional training as a multilateral training approach that integrates various modalities such as medicine balls, stretch cords, dumbbells, body weight, and more to produce significant adaptation in specific performance parameters. It trains all systems of the body while recognizing and respecting the wisdom of the body.

The result is a highly adaptable athlete who can perform without limitations in a competitive environment. Contrast this philosophy to a one-sided training philosophy that results in one-sided athletes who are inconsistent in performance and prone to injury.

Functional training is really just a label for this concept. As with any concept, it is subject to various interpretations and evolutionary paths. Unfortunately, functional training as it has been adapted by the fitness industry has been compromised. We need to rewind and examine the roots of functional training in order to better understand it.

We are at a crossroads in terms of the future of functional training as it is applied to improved sport performance. So we need to look back over the past 20 years and carefully assess how the concepts have been applied, as well as what worked and what did not work. It is more than being sport specific, it is using modes and methods of training that are appropriate for the sport and individual. It is more than exercise, it is how exercises are combined to achieve the desired results.


The concept of functional training came together for me in the late 1980s. As strength coaches, we were trapped in a mechanical approach that separated the body into distinct parts and systems. We were creating robots that performed well in a sterile training environment but had difficulty transferring that training to sport. The result was an athlete fully adapted to only one component of training.

Thriving in the performance arena demands the opposite: A versatile and highly adaptable athlete whose training is not biased, but instead reflects the demands of the sport and the needs of the individual athlete. The problem was a general failure to recognize that in order for the body to execute movement–whether that movement is a sustained endurance activity, explosive bursts, or a fine motor skill–all parts and systems need to work together in harmony.

Movement is a symphony, not a solo. You can’t do a “cardio” workout, just like you can’t do a “neural” workout. Every workout has cardiovascular and neural components because all systems of the body are involved at all times. Demand on a particular system can change with the type and intensity of activity, but all are utilized to some extent. To continue with the symphony metaphor, think of when a section of the orchestra is highlighted while the other parts of the orchestra are still playing in the background.

We can’t lose sight of the whole in our desire to train the parts. Functional training gives the body credit for its inherent wisdom and ability to learn to link, sync, connect, and coordinate, resulting in the beautiful movement symphony we call sports performance.

At the time of this revelation, I had been coaching close to 20 years and exposed to many different ideas and methods of training, some of which worked and some of which failed. But the conventional wisdom of the time was causing us to stagnate. There had to be more than mindlessly running straight ahead, more than excessive emphasis on heavy lifting, more than fancy machines that isolated body parts, and more than static stretching. In summary, I was at a stage in my career where I thought there had to be a better way.

This better way was an eclectic approach that combined my interpretation of sport science research, study of methods and concepts of rehabilitation, and practical experience both as a coach and athlete. I leaned heavily on the work of Gene Logan and Wayne McKinney and their classic text Kinesiology, Margaret Knott and Dorothy Voss and their work on proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), and John Jesse and his approach to performance training and injury prevention. It was a move away from a reductionist and segmented view of the body to a holistic, more synergistic approach.

In many ways, functional training taps into tried and true concepts and methods that were once the norm before falling out of favor for various reasons. The saying that everything old is new again could not be truer.


Over the years that functional training has become a household term in many weightrooms, there has been some confusion about what it really is. Often, a coach takes a small piece of the method and concentrates solely on that part of the concept.

For example, functional training incorporates a lot of different exercises into workouts. Some have turned this idea into a weird amalgamation of crazy exercises without any logical progression or justification.

But functional training is not just a bunch of different exercises haphazardly thrown together. It is a systematic, sequential, and progressive approach to training for the rigors of competition. You could call it “variety with a purpose.”

The key to a good, sound functional training program is progression. You must carefully assess where the athlete is and carve out a step-by-step progression to help them achieve specific realistic training objectives. You have to know where they have been and where you want to take them.

This begins with doing a sport demands analysis profile, a sport injury profile, comprehensive testing, and an individual athlete profile. Then you need to fill the gaps with a logical functional progression that will move forward only when the previous step has been mastered.

Another aspect of functional training some coaches don’t understand is that it’s not about measurable strength. How much an athlete can lift or how many foot-pounds of force they can produce are meaningless numbers. Instead, quality of movement, rhythm, synchronization, and connections are what is important.

The goal of functional training is always the ability to apply the strength that is developed to sport performance–can the athlete produce and reduce the force necessary? Force production is all about acceleration, but the key to movement efficiency and staying injury-free is often the ability to decelerate and stabilize to position the body to perform a desired movement. A good functional training program will work on the interplay between force production, force reduction, and stabilization. The end result is functional strength. Finally, functional strength is not about training individual muscles or muscle groups separately. Conventional academic preparation still focuses on studying individual muscles based on classical anatomy. Unfortunately, this is where confusion about functional movement often begins.

The anatomical position provides us with a way to arrange all of the individual muscles for ease of study and observation. But athletes do not function in the static anatomical position. It is important to understand that the brain does not recognize individual muscles. Rather, the brain recognizes patterns of movement in response to sensory input.


Because the foundational principle of functional training is to train movements, not muscles, let’s take a closer look at this concept. All movements are functional, just to different degrees. This can be illustrated by thinking of a one-to-10 scale with 10 being the most functional. Here are the basic criteria I use to determine placement of movements on the functional continuum:

Plane(s) of movement: If the movement involves multiple planes of motion as opposed to movement in one plane, then it is more functional and higher on the continuum.

Joint involvement: If the movement involves multiple joints as opposed to isolation on one joint, then it is more functional and higher on the continuum.

Speed of movement: If the speed and tempo of movement is as fast as can be in a controlled manner, then it is more functional and higher on the continuum.

Proprioceptive demand: If the movement requires high proprioceptive demand, then it is more functional and higher on the continuum of function.

Mindfulness: If the movement demands attention and concentration, as opposed to putting the mind on autopilot, then it is more functional and higher on the continuum.

Carefully examine the athletic movements you are trying to enhance. What are the forces involved? What is the dominant plane of motion? It is imperative to understand the movements and then design the training program accordingly.

Take the single-leg squat, for example. In order to progress in the movement, I would have an athlete begin performing the squat with their arms out so they can use them for balance, then progress to putting their hands on their hips for less balance assistance. The third step would be to have them put their arms overhead for even less help, and finally to have them hold a medicine ball overhead so they have zero balance assistance. At all four steps in this progression, I would have the athlete do three sets of six on each leg, squatting at 120 degrees and progressing to 90 degrees. The athlete would not move on to the next step in the progression without mastering the previous one.

Regardless of the sport, performance is a multidimensional activity. It takes place in a dynamic environment that forces movement to occur in all planes of motion using multiple joint movements to produce the desired movement mechanics. Therefore it is important that training involves the whole kinetic chain–toenails to fingernails–to reduce and produce force. This process ensures optimal neuromuscular control and efficiency of movement.

The body is incredibly smart. It is highly adaptable and self-organizing, which gives it an amazing ability to adapt to radical environmental extremes and all the stressors that can be placed upon it. Look around and see movement with different eyes.

There are no limits beyond your imagination and creativity as a coach, teacher, or rehab specialist. Look for possibilities, not limitations and dysfunctions. Give the body credit for its wisdom and then coach, teach, and rehab accordingly. Enjoy the process and marvel at the discoveries.

Understanding and applying a functional approach to training is a challenging process. It is often contrary to conventional wisdom as represented in mainstream sport science research. But that should not limit us. We need to use conventional wisdom as a staring point and move forward to think and act outside the box. Trust your instincts and allow your creativity to be expressed through movement. Follow the functional path to improved performance.


Over the years, I have developed basic principles to guide functional movement training. Use these as your guide and you will have consistent results with your athletes.

– Train movements, not muscles – Dynamic postural alignment and dynamic balance are the foundation for all training – Train fundamental movement skills before sport specific skills – Train core strength before extremity strength – Train bodyweight before external resistance – Train joint integrity before joint mobility – Train strength before strength endurance, power before power endurance, and speed before speed endurance – Train to build work capacity appropriate for the sport or event – Train sport appropriate: You are what you train to be.


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